Welcome to “Why Are You So Smart?,” Pacific Standard’s newest monthly column in which Noah Davis interviews a smart person and then interviews the smartest person that smart person knows and so on. For the debut Q&A, he asked the smartest person he knew for the smartest person he knew, which led to Huge CEO Aaron Shapiro. The Harvard University and Columbia Business School graduate was employee number 10 at the digital agency, transforming it from a small start-up to a 600-employee and growing behemoth. Shapiro talked about always working for himself, growing up without screens, and what he would do differently.
Was there a moment when you realized how smart you were?
Growing up I was always one of the smart and nerdy kids. I don’t know how smart I am or not, but I was brought up in a household that really placed a premium on intellectual pursuits. My father was a professor. We didn’t have a TV, and there was always classical music playing. When I was in fifth grade, The Empire Strikes Back came out. All the kids were playing Star Wars on the playground, and I hadn’t seen the movie. It’s not that my parents didn’t want me to see it; they just wouldn’t bother taking me to see it. Their solution was that I should read the book. So I did. That’s how I knew all the characters. I didn’t actually see the movie until college, and I had a totally different perception of how all the characters looked. But that’s the kind of environment I grew up in.
I was always naturally interested in science, math, and reading. When I went to school, I was in the G&T programs and the honors classes. It’s always been part of who I am. I’ve been in environments where I rise to the top, but I think it’s less about being at the top and more about being with people who you view as your peers. There was always a clique in school of the smarter kids. We worked together. Later on, there were summer science programs, and then going to Harvard. Through those things, you develop and feed off of other people. That’s one the things I love about Huge. I think this is by far the smartest group of people I have ever worked with. It’s interesting because there are so many different skill sets—be it designers or programmers—but they don’t have traditional backgrounds.
One of the things you did when you were a kid was taught yourself to code. Why?
My parents didn’t let me have video games, either. They were smart about it. They didn’t prevent us from watching TV or playing video games; we just didn’t have a TV or a video game console. There weren’t any rules; it just wasn’t in our house. I’ve actually done the same thing for my kids. I have a newborn, a three-year-old, and a five-year-old, and we have no screens, either.
When I was in elementary school, I was interested in games. We had none, so my parents suggested I make one. My dad was able to bring an early PC home from the university, and I learned BASIC from that. There was a game called Lemonade Stand that was popular at the time, and I programed that.
“People are intimidated by Harvard. I think it’s kind of overrated. Harvard is obviously a good school, but there are many good schools. It’s the brand, not the education you get.”
Have you continued programming?
I have, but it’s more of a hobby. I do some coding on the side. Within Huge, we have Huge Labs, which is an initiative to do start-ups. I’m contributing code to one of those.
I really made a big effort to learn how to program at the start of my career. I was running a software and Internet company, and I really forced myself to get good at programming, not because I wanted to be good at programming but because I wanted to know how to manage developers and how long it would take to build things.
And then in college you started a magazine. That’s an interesting choice.
When I was an undergrad, I got involved in a magazine called the Harvard International Review. It had the usual in-fighting and politics around a student-run magazine. It was fun, but I thought I should just start my own. It would be easier. So I did. That was my extracurricular activity in college. It was a real company that we ran like a student organization. It was pre-Internet in the early ’90s. Now, Harvard is a very entrepreneurial culture, but at the time people didn’t do that. We had a little student organization that was running the business.
What was it called?
Inside Edge. It was like Seventeen for guys. Fairly sophomoric. [Interviewer note: A Baltimore Sun piece ripped the intentions of the publication, although it also got Shapiro's first name wrong.]
That was my first experience with the Internet, though. Our head of IT at the time was adamant that we should start an Internet Service Provider because it was hard to get onto the Internet if you weren’t at college, and ISPs were growing something like 1,000 percent a month. He tried to convince me to invest $10,000 to start an ISP in Cambridge. After months of cajoling, he finally convinced me to go to his dorm room to see the Internet. He showed me the first browser, MOSAIC, and he showed me this page where a bunch of Stanford students put up a collection of their favorite websites. I thought it was the stupidest thing ever. That was the end of my Internet foray. If I had listened to him, I would have been like Zuckerberg or something. I completely missed the boat back then.
You have an entrepreneurial streak. Do you think that stems from being very smart?
What I love is to create new things and to build things, and to use that as a vehicle to explore new things. Entrepreneurship seems like a natural way to do that. I love finding a way to get paid to do what I love and to build great stuff. I never considered a conventional career. When I left Harvard, I went immediately to business school, and then I flirted with management consulting, which was interesting, but in the end you were on the sidelines. You weren’t building stuff. What I love about Huge is that we get to build great things for good companies.
When was the last time you weren’t your own boss?
I’ve actually never not been my own boss. I had two internships: one was my stint in management consulting and one was at Time Inc. What I’ve learned about myself is that I need a really good night’s sleep to function, so I’ve tried to adjust my life so I never have to use an alarm clock.
Where do you go to get advice?
A lot of the advice I get now, at least in the work context, is from people who work at Huge. I try to keep the structure pretty flat and stay accessible, so I can get advice from the people who work here. I work really hard to make sure I have a relationship with people so they can tell me how it is. I try to surround myself with people who I really respect and trust, and try to create an atmosphere where I can get advice without people feeling like they can’t say how it really is because I’m their boss. I usually don’t dress like this. [Shapiro wears a button-up shirt and slacks.] Usually, I work in jeans and a schlubby T-shirt. I do that intentionally.
Do ever downplay your intelligence?
I don’t think so. The thing I have to downplay is my educational background. People are intimidated by Harvard. I think it’s kind of overrated. Harvard is obviously a good school, but there are many good schools. It’s the brand, not the education you get. Outside of that, I don’t think much about it.
The campaign for your book, Users Not Customers, was great. Did you come up with the idea to have laid-off Barnes & Nobles staffers sell the book on the street?
I would love to take credit for it, but that was one of the creative directors within the company. That’s what they do. All I did was say “yes,” and green-light it.
If you were going to do it again, would you follow the same path?
Yes and no. Yes, because I like how my life turned out, and I wouldn’t want to change anything. If I were going to change my life, I would still go to Harvard because it was an amazing experience and I had an amazing time there, but I would question the decision to go to business school so quickly. I probably wouldn’t have gone directly after college. I probably would have moved to Silicon Valley and done one of those crazy start-ups there. I did one in New York and also in Atlanta, but it’s different. I also would have pursued coding much more. I would have made a concerted effort to become a great developer earlier. I think that in today’s economy knowing how to program is an essential skill set, and not just for developers.
This is the dilemma with my kids. On one hand, I think it’s great we don’t have screens, but at the same time I want them to become good programmers. At some point, I’m going to have to break the rules. But I have a few years since my oldest one is only five.
What do you read?
I’m embarrassed to stay I don’t read many books. I generally don’t have time. Most of what I read is on different websites like Hacker News to keep up with what’s going on in the industry and the world. We have an internal tool that I use a lot as well. When I do have time, I like to spend it with the kids.
When I was young, I used to read a ridiculous amount of literature. My mom was a dentist but later on she went through a Ph.D. program in English literature. She was my unofficial librarian. She scripted my reading list. I basically read the entire canon of classical literature by the time I was in the 10th or 11th grade. I’m very, very well read, but entirely because I was very well-read before the age of 16.
Since then, my interests have evolved. Now, I’ll get very interested in certain topics and I’ll read a lot about them, but it’s more of a one-off thing.
I did read Nate Silver’s book after the election. That was the last thing that I read.
Who’s the smartest person you know?
Stan Greenberg, who is the CEO of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner. He’s a well-known Democratic consultant who served as a pollster to Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Nelson Mandela, Ehud Barak, and others.